Sheep (and Soil Scientists) Juice Up the Solar Farm

Solar farmers get a hand from regenerative agriculture experts to feed the soil under their arrays—another powerful tool to help fight climate change.

February 20, 2020 |Robynne Boyd—This is a tale of two farms: White Oak Pastures and Bancroft Station Solar Farm. Both are located in rural southwestern Georgia, a region synonymous with agriculture (read: peanuts, corn, cotton, and cattle). Both harvest the bounty of nature. Yet White Oak Pastures is as old as Bancroft Station is new. The sixth-generation homestead operates as the economic and social hub for the town of Bluffton (population 100) and as a paragon of regenerative agriculture through its pasture-raised livestock and devotion to maintaining healthy soils and a balanced ecosystem. Bancroft Station, a state-of-the-art solar power facility, went online two months ago to power a huge Facebook data center and help meet the company’s 100 percent renewable energy goal.

On the face of it, the businesses couldn’t be farther apart. After all, the emphasis in the term “solar farm” falls prominently on the first word; the developments are just as often called “solar power stations” or “photovoltaic power plants.” But many are, in fact, built on former croplands. Indeed, cotton and peanuts previously grew on the 700 acres where Bancroft Station now sits, and cattle grazed there.

Some cotton plants still linger around the arrays, too—proof that a transition is taking place. And that’s a good thing, says William Harris III, herdsman and mastermind behind White Oak Pastures. He believes that solar developers should take a page from traditional, holistic farmers in caring for their land. So when he learned that thousands of acres of solar would rise in his community, he invited Reagan Farr, the CEO of solar farm developer Silicon Ranch, for a visit. He was wary at first, concerned that Farr would overmow his newly acquired turf and spray it with pesticides. “I didn’t expect to like him,” says Harris. “And we just hit a real accord.”

In a world where old and new school rarely see eye to eye, these two farms are joining forces to build a more sustainable future from the ground up. Come springtime, Harris will release 1,000 sheep among Bancroft Station’s more than 350,000 solar arrays to graze, nap in the panels’ shade, and naturally fertilize the soil. The low-tech lawn care arrangement (i.e., sheep rental) will yield a cascade of benefits for the land, from erosion prevention and flood control to improved carbon sequestration. In turn, the sheep will fatten up on the vegetation, making the business partnership doubly good for the rancher’s bottom line.

The farms’ alliance offers lessons to other developers of solar power, which is booming in the Southeast. The Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE) projects that solar capacity will more than double across the region in the next couple of years. Many of the new projects are being driven by clean energy demands from tech giants and other Fortune 500 companies. In 2018, Facebook drove solar commitments in Georgia (totalling 203 megawatts), Alabama (227 MW), and Tennessee (150 MW). Google announced projects of 150 MW each for Tennessee and Alabama.

The sheep address a central upkeep challenge faced by solar developers like Silicon Ranch, which operates nine utility-scale projects in Georgia, Mississippi, and Tennessee. Left uncut, the vegetation growing beneath solar panels limits functionality and accessibility. However, conventional mowing, weed whacking, and using herbicides and pesticides “break the hell out of the natural cycles,” says Harris, leading to soil degradation, erosion, and chemical runoff that pollutes waterways.